Violence a key factor in Iraqi election schedule

Attack in one ethnic area could skew results of vote

January 22, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - For months, the Bush administration has resisted Iraqi calls for direct elections by June 30, citing the need for a census to compile voter rolls and other measures to ensure fair balloting but too cumbersome to complete in time.

But some experts say that many of these conditions could be met. Another obstacle, perhaps greater and largely unacknowledged, according to the military, the United Nations and outside election experts, is the continuing violence in Iraq.

To argue that security is a serious impediment, however, would be to admit U.S. forces are unable to quell the running war with the insurgents.

Some American generals say privately that the attacks, especially those on Iraqi civilians, present a daunting obstacle to holding the direct elections demanded by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the country's most powerful cleric among the majority Shiites.

Even those outside experts who say that there are practical ways to hold a quick vote say that turnout could be suppressed by violence and that protecting the polls with soldiers or policemen, too, might keep people away.

"I guess you could devise mechanisms to make it possible, security permitting," said Joost R. Hiltermann, a Middle East expert at the conflict-prevention International Crisis Group, who visited Iraq this week to research the prospects for elections here. "But `security permitting' is a big if. The risk is that if you go ahead, the results could be seriously skewed, even dangerously skewed."

If bombings or other attacks like those that occurred this week in Baghdad, Karbala and Mosul take place in one section of the country or another during balloting, the resulting disparities in security might badly reduce turnout in certain areas and render the election unfair, election experts say.

Iraq's ethnic divisions, mirrored imperfectly in its politics, tend to follow rough geographic lines that define the largely Kurdish north, the central Sunni Arab heartland and the overwhelmingly Shiite Arab south.

It would be especially dangerous if security is weak in Sunni Arab areas and depressed turnout among that group, which makes up a fifth of the country's 25 million people. Sunnis formed the core of Saddam Hussein's government, and it is in the so-called Sunni triangle that violence against the American military is fiercest. Many Sunnis already feel disenfranchised, and their anger will only grow if security problems keep them from voting and skew the election results, Hiltermann said.

Under the current plan, a transitional assembly - several hundred Iraqis from every region and social sector - will be chosen in caucus-style elections from the country's 18 provinces. That assembly is to choose an interim government in June, and that indirectly elected interim government is to draft a constitution.

But shortly after the November agreement, al-Sistani came out against the caucus plan and for direct balloting. A direct ballot would give the Shiites, who account for 60 percent of the population, a clear advantage, while the caucus plan is more likely to give moderate politicians a leg up.

On Monday, 100,000 supporters of al-Sistani marched through Baghdad protesting the coalition's plans.

The crowds have been peaceful, if adamant, in echoing his repeated calls for the kind of democracy that they say direct elections would produce.

The military, though, which has sustained hundreds of casualties in the past few months, sees democracy following security, not the other way around.

"Regarding elections, the concerns one in the military would have are security, and how the votes are represented and counted, given right now there's no polling data," a U.S. Army general based in central Iraq said in an interview yesterday.

An electoral assessment team from the United Nations visited Iraq for two weeks over the summer and concluded that it was possible to set up mechanisms for direct elections within six months, according to an official who worked out of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

Their findings were summed up in an internal report written by Carina Perelli, the head of the U.N. electoral assistance division, who had met with Iraqi officials and leaders of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The report was never circulated and is now considered outdated by U.N. officials in New York precisely because the security situation has deteriorated so much that the findings are obsolete. A deadly bombing in August drove the United Nations out of Iraq.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is sending a four-member team of military and security experts to Iraq this week to assess dangers in the country before deciding whether to send in an electoral assessment team that would look again at the feasibility of direct elections.

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